I remember being overwhelmed on multiple fronts in the first few months of my college experience. The beginning of Freshman year was akin to a disorienting fever dream- adapting to college life, meeting new people, trying to avoid getting hit by a car every time I’d cross the street. Luckily, I adapted and by my Sophomore year I was able to feel like a genuine New Yorker, or at least a genuine NYC College student. Getting there was a battle, though, and it required no small amount of bravery. In order to feel comfortable in the city, in class, and as a person I had to overcome fear based decision making.
It happened (and still happens) often, the all too familiar feeling of anxiously second guessing my thoughts whenever I raise my hand. The twitch of my finger that won’t let me press send on that important email- at least not until I’ve reread my draft 47 times. I feel this same anxiousness every time I walk into an audition room. It’s a normal, even healthy aspect of life. However, the butterflies become a monstrous beast when they begin dictating your decisions. When the thoughts of I’m very nervous for this audition, I better prepare a bit more… turn into I’m very nervous for this audition. Maybe I’ll skip this one, there is always another… you’ve encountered a serious problem. Simple butterflies can morph into fear based decision makers in every aspect of our lives if left unchecked. Maybe I shouldn’t bother asking them to hang out, they might just say no anyways. Or even worse, I know I’ve been wanting to start this project for awhile, but it looks overwhelming. Maybe it’d be better to quit before I’m in too deep. When we find ourselves rationalizing in order to justify running away- we know that the butterflies have become a beast. So what can we do to keep our nerves in check? There are a few helpful truths that I’ve come to realize, which have become my weapons in the ongoing war against fear: fear shrinks the moment you look it in the eye, you have to treat fear like a cigarette, courageous and fearless are not synonymous.
Firm Eye Contact
Fear relies on your inability to look it in the eye. In the shadows, it can grow into something far larger and more threatening than it actually is. We see this fundamental trope portrayed in cartoons often. The door creaks open and through it emerges a giant, menacing shadow. The protagonists comically reel back in horror, until a moment later, a bunny hops into frame- it’s shadow over-exaggerating the presence of what was really lurking behind that door. The example is cute and funny but it explains a fundamental reality about fear, the unknown is the worst part. What if I send that email and my message is misconstrued? What if I make a fool of myself? Those statements contain a lot of ‘what ifs’, a lot of conjectures about what might go wrong, a lot of shadows. If I’m feeling anxious about a decision I’m about to make, I take a pause and look fear directly in the eye by asking myself two questions. Why am I doing this in the first place? Clearly, if I’m about to do something, it holds value to me. There has to be a benefit to doing it. Usually, that should outweigh the possible negativity. It is important to focus on what is possible as opposed to what might go wrong. If you choose to forgo something out of fear, then there is zero chance of success. What is the worst that could realistically happen? ‘Realistically’ is important here because if we don’t ground ourselves in the reality of the situation, that shadow is free to grow as large as it wants. If I send this email and it gets misconstrued, then I can always clarify my meaning afterward. It’s unlikely that the email is going to result in some sort of ‘gmail world war’. So in practice, the thought process may look something like this: I’m afraid of this audition I have. I could succumb to that anxious shadow I see peering through the door but if I do I’ll lose any possibility of getting cast whatsoever. Why am I doing this? It’s what I love to do and I believe that getting cast would be a positive development in regards to my goals. What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t get cast, which is the same result I’d get from giving into fear in the first place. We make the decision to obey fear, thinking that on some level, it’ll save us from failing. In actuality, it just expedites the process. Not auditioning is the same as auditioning and not getting cast- only I’ll have to look back and question, ‘what if?’ for the foreseeable future. Fear doesn’t save us from anything, it just ensures perpetual failure. Recognizing that, looking it in the eye, is a huge step in the war against fear.
Fear is a Cigarette
I like to compare fear based decision making to a cigarette addiction. I think they hold some stark similarities. Each cigarette a person smokes rewires them to become more dependent on nicotine. Every time they take a drag, it may feel like they’re quelling that anxious craving but in actuality they’re feeding it. The cigarette they used to numb the craving only furthered their dependency on nicotine and as a consequence, they’ll be jonesing for a smoke even harder next time. We can substitute fear based decisions in for cigarettes and the story still adds up. Each time a decision is made that gives into fear or runs from discomfort, it increases the likelihood that you’ll fall into a pattern of running instead of progressing. Choosing the option to run may feel like what’s necessary from a self preservation standpoint- just like the urge to smoke feels necessary to quell a craving- but in actuality it’s just furthering the problem. In extreme cases, this can manifest in the form of agoraphobia. There is good news, though. While it is important to recognize that giving into fear increases the likelihood that you’ll succumb to it in the future, it should be noted that each time you face fear and discomfort, even a little bit, you grow exponentially stronger. Every time you make the active choice to face discomfort, you rewire a bit to maintain that pattern. Exposing yourself to things that you’re uncomfortable with, or even afraid of, is at the heart of making yourself a stronger combatant in the fight against fear. Maybe you’ll even take a risk and things will pay off well. You DID raise your hand in class and it prompted a fantastic discussion. Good thing you spoke up. That email you sent was well received and now you’ve landed an in-person meeting. Good thing you clicked send. Simply facing fear instead of running increases your chances of beating fear in the future but when that positive choice pays off as well- let’s just say you’re on your way to becoming a regular Rocky Balboa in the ring.
Courageous is NOT Synonymous With Fearless
Courageous is not synonymous with fearless. In fact, I’d argue that you cannot have courage without fear. Being courageous is the simple act of picking yourself up and facing fear head on- and as the tumble weeds roll by and that audition, interview, or email stares you in the face, it’s okay to be nervous. You’re never going to be able to escape the those butterflies entirely and that’s okay. That’s normal. Those butterflies are a helpful and natural asset. They keep you alert and on your toes whenever you’re doing something important. Those butterflies helped you catch that typo in your email. Those butterflies gave you just enough jitters to keep alive during that song you auditioned with. So no, you can’t kill the nerves entirely and you shouldn’t want to. They’ll likely be with you your entire life, aiding you in all of your endeavors. Just make sure to keep an eye on them. Butterflies and Beasts. One is welcome, the other must be slain- it’s a fine line. As long as those nerves aren’t dictating your decisions or keeping you from achieve your goals- you’re in the clear. Try this next time you feel healthy nerves- say “I’m excited”, every time you feel like saying “I’m nervous.” A professor I had Freshman year told me that, it’s done wonders for me.
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